’12 Years a Slave’ wouldn’t have been made if Obama wasn’t president, says Steve McQueen while presenting ‘Sunshine State’4 min read
Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” was released nearly a century after DW Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” the first film shown at the White House. McQueen’s photo, however, was not displayed at the US President’s official residence. The British director spoke on Saturday at a conversation event at the Rotterdam International Film Festival.
“It was right after that situation with Skip Gates,” McQueen said, referring to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates by Sergeant James Crowley, a suspected case of racial profiling that created great controversy for then-President Barack Obama, local police. He was accused of taking sides after publicly saying the department had acted “stupidly”. “So, at the time, everything Obama was doing was being scrutinized,” the director continued, “and that was why ’12 Years a Slave’ wasn’t projected – 99 years after ‘The Birth of a Nation’ – at the White House.”
The filmmaker added: “But then again, ’12 Years a Slave’ wouldn’t have been made if Obama hadn’t been president, that’s for sure. Absolutely not. Wouldn’t have gotten the money. I think people wanted to portray that particular time in history when there was a black president.” This movie made it possible.”
McQueen is in Rotterdam to exhibit his most recent artwork, “Sunshine State”, his first since “3 years” at Tate Britain in 2019. Originally commissioned to celebrate IFFR’s 50th anniversary, the piece was delayed for three years due to the pandemic but eventually found its way to the Dutch city for this year’s edition of the festival. The audiovisual piece is on display at the Depot Boijmans van Beuningen museum.
“Right before my father died, he told me this story,” the director said of the inspiration behind the piece. Brought to Florida from the West Indies to work as an orange picker, McQueen’s father had a painful brush with death when two of his colleagues confronted a white bar owner who refused to serve drinks to three black men. Two men were killed in the collision, with McQueen’s father narrowly escaping the same fate.
“Sunshine State” juxtaposes an audio recording of Alan Crosland’s 1927 musical “The Jazz Singer” — the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue — and footage of the sun recorded by NASA telling the story. “He’s never told me before, so he’s been carrying it with him for over 50 years. He thought he could tell me that time. So he’s been carrying it around with him all these years, thinking that he shouldn’t be here. Or the possibility that he wouldn’t be here. It was a trauma he carried every day.”
McQueen spoke about his relationship with his father. “I think my father would have liked me to be a plumber, a carpenter or a mechanic, because those professions are kind of essential and can’t be taken away from you. The industry is predominately run by white men, so, therefore, they’re the only ones who can judge whether you’re good or not, they’re the ones who pay you if you’re good or not. So being outside of that sort of categorization, outside of that assessment, it’s safe.”
McQueen had wanted to work with “The Jazz Singer” for more than 20 years, but struggled to get the rights from Warner Bros. According to the filmmaker, this was because he still “didn’t get the juice” and, once his work became more prominent, he went straight to a studio head and obtained permission to work with the footage, now in the public domain. “The Jazz Singer” is now widely recognized as racist due to its use of blackface, the noxious nature of this image central to “Sunshine State”, but there is no blackface in the artwork.
McQueen comments on the racist politics of the artwork. “I gave [Al Jolson’s character Jack Robin] Computer-generated gloves because he doesn’t have gloves in his actual performance. And it’s interesting, the whole idea of those white gloves and Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, who are basically minstrels. It’s interesting how that tradition is embedded in public culture. what can you say It’s mockery.”
When asked about the personal tone of the artwork, the director said that “Sunshine State” is a personal work, but it is public. “It’s happening to a lot of people. Unfortunately, it happened in recent days,” McQueen said, referring to the killing of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers. “So, again, my story is very personal in some ways, but it’s not at all.”